Is there hope for Israel's two forgotten hostages?
Hamas has been holding two mentally ill Israeli hostages in Gaza for nearly a decade, with Israeli society paying very little attention to their plight
Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed have been held as hostages in Gaza since 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Unlike the roughly 240 people kidnapped in the Hamas October 7 terrorist attack, the campaign for the release of Mengistu and al-Sayed has received little publicity.
The two cases, and the similarities between them, tell a bigger story about how Israel views its hostages.
'It's very hard' say relatives
Hisham al-Sayed is an Israeli citizen, a Bedouin from the southern town of Hura. In 2015, he crossed the Gaza border and has been held there by Hamas ever since.
It wasn't the first time al-Sayed crossed the border into the Gaza Strip. On previous occasions, he had been returned to Israel. This time, though, Hamas chose a different course of action.
The Islamist militant group, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union, Germany, the United States and other nations, says al-Sayed is an Israeli combatant, but the rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that is not the case, noting that he is a civilian.
"Hisham crossed the border to Gaza due to his illness," his father Sha'aban tells DW.
His family did not know his whereabouts for three months after he disappeared. Then Hamas released a statement announcing that he was being held in the Gaza Strip.
"As a family, this hits you where it hurts the most," Sha'aban al-Sayed says.
'A mentally ill person who got lost'
Avera Mengistu is another Hamas prisoner in Gaza. An Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, he is from the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.
In 2014, Mengistu crossed the border into Gaza on his own, only to be caught by Hamas. As in the case of Hisham al-Sayed, Hamas argues he's an Israeli soldier.
And just as with al-Sayed, HRW says Mengistu is a civilian, not a combatant.
The similarities don't end there. Mengistu is known to suffer from what HRW deemed "serious" mental health issues.
"Avera crossed one of the safest borders in the world, under the eyes of the security services," recalls Gil Elias, a relative. "We're talking about a mentally ill person who got lost."
Hostage videos provide signs of life
Both families have received glimmers of hope over the years in the form of video footage of their loved ones in Hamas captivity.
A video of Avera Mengistu, released in January 2023, showed him calling on the Israeli government to negotiate for his release.
"I recognized him right away," says Gil Elias. "He looked to be in good physical shape from what we could gather."
For the al-Sayed family, however, the impression they took away from the hostage footage released by the terrorist organization gave them cause for concern about Hisham's physical condition. In a Hamas video released in June 2022, the Israeli Bedouin was seen lying in bed, connected to medical equipment.
Sha'aban al-Sayed says the video is supposed to put the families and the Israeli government under pressure.
"This is all part of Hamas' psychological warfare," he says.
Finding fault with Israel and Hamas
While there are many similarities between the two cases, the most significant difference is how criticism is expressed by each family, and who they say is to blame.
Gil Elias recalls how the Mengistu family trusted the Israeli government to bring Avera home. He says the family did not speak publicly about the matter for a year.
"We're talking about a staunchly Zionist family," he says, adding that the family did what it had been told to do by the government and remained silent. "This naivety is what's been keeping Avera in Gaza for more than nine years."
While the Mengistu family lays the blame on the Israeli government, the al-Sayed family says Hamas, and only Hamas, is responsible for their son's situation. In their view, Hamas is acting against the religion of Islam by holding Hisham and Avera Mengistu hostage.
"In Islam, the sins of the mentally ill don't count," Sha'aban al-Sayed says. "If they are only willing to release mentally ill people if they get something in return, they're acting against Islam. They should stop saying they are a Muslim organization. I say these things as a Muslim myself."
Two communities discriminated against in Israel
But that's where the differences end. The families are in regular contact with one another, and both describe relations as respectful and warm.
But the cases of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed also tell the bigger stories of their two respective communities — and the discrimination both face in Israel.
Both the Bedouin and the Ethiopian communities suffer from structural discrimination in Israeli society.
While the campaign for the release of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 has been hard to miss across Israel's streets and on social media, calls for the release of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed have been barely audible during the many years they have been held captive in Gaza.
October 7 brought a new awareness for hostages
But then, the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7 brought an unexpected development: The fact that the Islamist group had taken more than 240 hostages transformed the issue into a national priority.
All of a sudden, the al-Sayed and Mengistu families were not alone any more.
"In the beginning, no one was interested in us. The Holocaust that took place on October 7 — and I insist on calling it a Holocaust — has intensified interest in our case," says Sha'aban al-Sayed.
Gil Elias describes a similar situation, he says the fact that Hamas holds so many Israeli citizens hostage has "increased Avera's chances".
"Today I feel the warm hug we receive," he says. "Avera may not be the main reason for this hug, but people understand his case a lot more clearly now."
Families no longer feel abandoned
Just recently, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed were added to the list of names represented by the Hostages and Missing Persons Families' Forum, meaning their names are included in the worldwide campaign for the release of the Israeli hostages.
Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Yarden Gat was taken hostage by Hamas on October 7, summed up the sentiments of many Israelis on his Instagram feed, writing, "Gil [Elias] has been experiencing this for nine years already."
"If we would have been there with him and his family, maybe we all would have been spared this nightmare of more than 100 days."
Talking about Israeli society's perception of Avera's case, Gil Elias believes it is about something much more than a hostage being held by a militant group.
"I always say that Avera's case is Israeli society's citizenship test," he says. "And it's a test we have failed."
Edited by: Jon Shelton and Lucy James